October 2013 Archives

personality map

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Chris Mooney's personality map of the US references a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

After administering a battery of personality tests to more than a million and a half Americans across the country, the study divides us up into three psychological regions: The "friendly and conventional" South and Great Plains; the "relaxed and creative" mountain states and West Coast; and the "temperamental and uninhibited" East Coast and New England states.


"Politics is personality," writes Mooney, claiming that "the overall trend is clear:"

The residents of more liberal and more conservative states differ in personality: In how open their residents are to new experiences, and in how much they prize order and stability in their lives.

How do these personality dimensions drive ideology? Well, put simply, people who are Open embrace change. Fixing healthcare with a big new system and way of doing things? Bring it on. By contrast, people who are low on Openness and high on Conscientiousness are interested in stability and just not messing with it. Yes, that's right: The core of the left-right divide, which turns on one's relative embrace of change versus the status quo, is rooted in an individual's psychological makeup. And personality traits, in turn, are substantially heritable and run in families.

Captain America

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Captain America isn't just any hero, writes Steven Attewell. As he explains, "Steve Rogers is my favorite superhero:"

Why? Because unlike other patriotism-themed characters, Steve Rogers doesn't represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and place - 1930's New York City. We know he was born July 4, 1920 (not kidding about the 4th of July) to a working-class family of Irish Catholic immigrants who lived in New York's Lower East Side. This biographical detail has political meaning: given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn't grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall.

Also, he "came of age in New York City at a time when the New Deal was in full swing" [and] "Then he became a fine arts student:"

And if a poor kid like Steve Rogers was going to college as a fine arts student, odds are very good that he was going to the City College of New York at a time when an 80% Jewish student body is organizing student trade unions, anti-fascist rallies, and the "New York Intellectuals" were busily debating Trotskyism vs. Stalinism vs. Norman Thomas Socialism vs. the New Deal in the dining halls and study carrels.

And this Steve Rogers, who's been exposed to all of what New York City has to offer, becomes an explicit anti-fascist. In the fall of 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor, he first volunteers to join the army to fight the Nazis specifically. This isn't an apolitical patriotism forged out of a sense that the U.S has been attacked; rather, Steve Rogers had come to believe that Nazism posed an existential threat to the America he believed in. New Deal America.

"The larger point here," he writes, "is that unlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain America is meant to represent the America of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the Second Bill of Rights - a particular progressive ideal." Just for giggles, here's the Jack Kirby cover of Captain America Comics #1, from March 1941:


marriage gap

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Derek Thompson writes that marriage is not a luxury good, based on results from a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey on marriage trends by education and race:

There have been a lot of articles this year comparing marriage to a "luxury good"--something the rich do and the poor avoid. It's not that simple. [...]

So why is it misleading to call marriage a "luxury good"? A luxury good is something the rich buy, and the poor don't. But the majority of practically every major demographic gets married before their 40s. That's not a luxury good. That's just ... a good.

Let's consider the divorce gap instead:

Divorce doesn't look like a luxury good; it looks like an inferior good. The richer you are, the less likely you are to do it. Divorce rates by age 46 are twice as high among high-school dropouts than college grads.

power and privacy

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Bruce Schneier's piece on the battle for power on the Internet points out that "On the corporate side, power is consolidating, a result of two current trends in computing:"

First, the rise of cloud computing means that we no longer have control of our data. Our e-mail, photos, calendars, address books, messages, and documents are on servers belonging to Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and so on. And second, we are increasingly accessing our data using devices that we have much less control over: iPhones, iPads, Android phones, Kindles, ChromeBooks, and so on. Unlike traditional operating systems, those devices are controlled much more tightly by the vendors, who limit what software can run, what they can do, how they're updated, and so on.

"In many cases," he continues, "the interests of corporate and government powers are aligning:"

Both corporations and governments benefit from ubiquitous surveillance, and the NSA is using Google, Facebook, Verizon, and others to get access to data it couldn't otherwise. The entertainment industry is looking to governments to enforce its antiquated business models. Commercial security equipment from companies like BlueCoat and Sophos is being used by oppressive governments to surveil and censor their citizens. The same facial recognition technology that Disney uses in its theme parks can also identify protesters in China and Occupy Wall Street activists in New York. Think of it as a public/private surveillance partnership.

"Most people," Schneier notes, "get increasingly isolated as government and corporate power align."

Transparency and oversight give us the confidence to trust institutional powers to fight the bad side of distributed power, while still allowing the good side to flourish. For if we're going to entrust our security to institutional powers, we need to know they will act in our interests and not abuse that power. Otherwise, democracy fails.

Initiatives like the Dark Mail Alliance offer hope, however:

Some of the world's top cryptographers are behind the secure communications provider Silent Circle, and they've teamed up with the founder of Lavabit, the email provider used by Edward Snowden, which recently shut down in a bid to resist surveillance. They're calling it the "Dark Mail Alliance." For months, the team has been quietly working on rebuilding email as we know it--and they claim to have had a breakthrough.

The newly developed technology has been designed to look just like ordinary email, with an interface that includes all the usual folders--inbox, sent mail, and drafts. But where it differs is that it will automatically deploy peer-to-peer encryption, so that users of the Dark Mail technology will be able to communicate securely. The encryption, based on a Silent Circle instant messaging protocol called SCIMP, will apply to both content and metadata of the message and attachments. And the secret keys generated to encrypt the communications will be ephemeral, meaning they are deleted after each exchange of messages.

For the NSA and similar surveillance agencies across the world, it will sound like a nightmare.

...and like a dream come true for the rest of us. An open-source dream:

Silent Circle and Lavabit don't plan to offer the technology exclusively. On the contrary, the source code of the software will be made public for anyone to scrutinize and audit, and the team is hoping that other email providers will be willing to join the Dark Mail Alliance. The more companies that do, the more secure email will become.

It might arrive shortly:

With the Dark Mail Alliance technology in place, Silent Circle is planning to resurrect Silent Mail in early 2014. All Dark Mail emails passing over the company's servers will be encrypted, and it won't hold the keys to decrypt them. Its servers will be located in Canada and Switzerland. "Any agencies that come down to us have no way to force us to comply [with surveillance] because architecturally it's impossible," says Janke. "That's the beauty of it."

WaPo writes about the NSA, Google, and Yahoo:

According to a top secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013, NSA's acquisitions directorate sends millions of records every day from Yahoo and Google internal networks to data warehouses at the agency's Fort Meade headquarters. In the preceding 30 days, the report said, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records -- ranging from "metadata," which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, to content such as text, audio and video.

The PR flacks are spinning furiously:

In a statement, Google said it was "troubled by allegations of the government intercepting traffic between our data centers, and we are not aware of this activity."

"We have long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping, which is why we continue to extend encryption across more and more Google services and links," the company said.

At Yahoo, a spokeswoman said: "We have strict controls in place to protect the security of our data centers, and we have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency."

Despite consumer concerns, "Yahoo has not announced plans to encrypt its data center links."

Robin Hood

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In another reminder that trickle-down economics doesn't work, Digby points out that a record Dow doesn't mean jobs:

The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit another record high yesterday, closing at a nosebleed-worthy 15,680.35. This isn't exactly a surprise, given that corporate profits are at or near record highs and still growing strongly. So where are all the jobs?

The fact that "Business, and big business in particular, is doing very, very well" is endlessly publicized:

Yet unemployment remains high, wages are stagnant, economic mobility is weak and the middle class is shrinking. Corporations are sitting on vast accumulated wealth, but are not investing that wealth in human capital that advances broad-based prosperity. [...]

We do, on the other hand, have plenty of evidence that high levels of income inequality are very damaging to an economy. We have plenty of evidence that corporations are unwilling to invest in new products because they're not certain that consumers will be able to afford them. Moreover, we know that unemployment was lower and the nation more prosperous when taxes on the wealthy were higher, when regulations on Wall Street were more stringent, and when organized labor was more powerful. [...]

The argument should by all rights be over. Much as in other areas of scientific debate, conservatives have plainly lost this argument in the realm of fact, and have resorted to restating ideological opinions in the hope that repetition will become accepted truth.

John Nichols suggests that a "Robin Hood Tax" might help solve our fiscal problems:

That's a tax on high-stakes financial transactions, as proposed in the House by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota. Ellison's "Inclusive Prosperity Tax" would raise hundreds of billions in new revenues. "This is a small tax on Wall Street transactions to meet the needs of our nation," says Ellison, who asks: "Didn't America step up to the plate when Wall Street needed help?"

The congressman's proposal would also reduce harmful market speculation. As Ellison says, "Gambling on Wall Street does not benefit our society."

Paul Krugman discusses rentiers, entitlement, and monetary policy, pointing out that inflation fears have become "yet another reason for the Fed to tighten despite a still-depressed economy and inflation falling well below target:"

Many of the people making these arguments started with dire warnings about runaway inflation; but when inflation failed to materialize, they didn't change their policy views, they came up with new rationales for doing exactly the same thing.

This kind of behavior -- ever-shifting rationales for an unchanging policy (see: Bush tax cuts, invasion of Iraq, etc.) -- is a "tell". It says that something else is really motivating the policy advocacy. So what is going on here? When I read Gross and others, what I think is lurking underneath is a belief that capitalists are entitled to good returns on their capital, even if it's just parked in safe assets. It's about defending the privileges of the rentiers, who are assumed to be central to everything; the specific stories are just attempts to rationalize the unchanging goal.

He also reminds us that "we are still in a liquidity trap:"

But right now we're awash in excess savings with nowhere to go, and the marginal social value of a dollar of savings is negative. So real interest rates should be negative too, if they're supposed to reflect social payoffs.

This really isn't at all exotic -- but obviously it's a point wealth-owners don't want to hear. Hence the constant agitation for monetary tightening.

In explaining the high cost of low taxes, Smirking Chimp suggests that "Delinking taxes from the services they pay for has arguably been the modern conservative movement's greatest success:"

No politician has ever been booed off a stage for promising to cut taxes. But decades of public opinion polling shows that, with a few exceptions, Americans are actually quite fond of the goods and services the public sector provides. They may be wary of the idea of "big government" in the abstract, but they like well-maintained infrastructure, safe food and clean water, efficient firefighting and policing, Medicare and Social Security and virtually every other government-provided service you can name.

This paradox is well known to politicians and policymakers, and has caused a good deal of hand-wringing among those who favor a progressive tax system that raises enough funds to cover the services Americans expect. But there's another consequence of anti-tax demagoguery: low, low taxes come with a steep cost. In fact, a lower tax bill - especially for federal taxes -- actually works against the economic interests of most Americans.

That's because we pay ridiculously high out-of-pocket costs for things that are provided by the public sector in other developed countries.

"Americans pay[ing] through the teeth for social services," the piece continues, "isn't an accident:"

It's the result of decades of policymaking based on what's been sold as an "ownership society." Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker called it a "personal responsibility crusade" that's been firmly embraced by corporate America and conservative politicians.

In his book, The Great Risk Shift, Hacker detailed how a huge share of the retirement security and health care burden has been shifted from employers and the government onto the backs of working people themselves. These are the insurances that mitigate one's risk in a capitalist society, and their loss has left American families exposed and economically insecure.

Who should the economy work for--the Sheriff of Nottingham, or the people?

new Obamacare lie

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Here's some more on "rate shock," the GOP's shameful new Obamacare lie:

If you're a healthcare reform supporter and have found yourself arguing with a conservative about Obamacare this week you've probably been confronted with three different but related complaints.

1. Millions of people with individual market healthcare coverage are getting cancellation notices from their insurers.

2. People who got those notices are now experiencing "rate shock."

3. President Obama thus lied to the public when he claimed, repeatedly, that under Obamacare "if you like your coverage, you can keep it."

In a way it's a healthy development for conservatives because for the first time they're actually reacting to real testimonials from real people, instead of just regurgitating some derp they invented or read on Drudge.

But as always, the point of the complaints isn't to address and rectify problems, but to deploy them as subterfuge to wreck the entire reform edifice.

This is yet another example of why normal debate about Obamacare is impossible, because "GOP outrage about Americans supposedly 'losing' coverage is largely just more of the same old misdirection:"

It's a subset of a larger Republican refusal to have an actual debate about the law's tradeoffs -- one in which the law's benefits for millions of Americans are also reckoned with in a serious way.

TruthOut calls Obamacare the biggest insurance scam in history:

The industries that profit from our current health care system wrote the legislation, heavily influenced the regulations and have received waivers exempting them from provisions in the law. This has all been done to protect and enhance their profits.

Not that we should expect anything better from an old GOP idea, watered down to appease contemporary Republican radicals:

In the case of the ACA, the foundation began with the health law passed by Massachusetts in 2006. The template was created by Stephen Butler of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The law was passed under a Republican governor, Mitt Romney.

Its true shortcomings bear witness to its lineage:

The fundamental flaw of the ACA is that it entrenches a market-based system that treats health care as a commodity and profit center for Wall Street. The big drivers of the rising cost of health care - insurance, pharmaceuticals and for-profit hospitals - continue. The wealth divide that is a major byproduct of neoliberal economics is institutionalized by law under the ACA.

The idea of "Medicare for all" could have bypassed this entire imbroglio:

By just dropping two words, "over 65," the United States would not have needed the 2,200-page ACA. Then the country could have worked to gradually improve Medicare so that the United States moved toward the best health care in the world, rather than being mired at the bottom.

Cruz Christ

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Ted Cruz "didn't get his arrogance simply by being a Harvard man," writes Politicus USA--he's also the Dominionist messiah:

The Religious Right leaders who are not simply using him to further their own agenda think he is the anointed messiah. The base sure acts like they think he is the messiah just as they once thought Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and others have been anointed messiahs.

The Religious Right needs a messiah because their weaponized Jesus is just a name for them. Jesus, who is every other Christian's messiah, can't be their messiah because Jesus reviled the wrong people: the rich, not the poor. Jesus' transfer of wealth therefore came at the problem of wealth from the wrong direction, from rich to poor.

That is not at all what Cruz & Co. have in mind. Liberals and progressives might laugh at what they see as a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo, but they would do well to realize that Ted Cruz and his fellow heretics who pack those megachurches every Sunday are deadly serious.

ThinkProgress suggests that libertarians and progressives will never get along:

Grassroots libertarians appear to place a far higher priority on the economic issues that bind them to the GOP than the social values they share with progressives. As a consequence, they hate Democrats and on-balance like the GOP. It doesn't seem, in short, that American libertarians have much interest in building anything resembling a durable alliance with progressives.

The piece also notes that a Public Religion Research Institute poll (PDF) "found that seven percent of the total American populations were libertarians." Of those, 57% of them identify as conservative, and only 3% identified as liberal.


Gann, Kyle. No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010)

I've mentioned John Cage's 4'33" a few times before--here and here--and have listed his book Silence as being among my favorites; it should be no surprise that Kyle Gann's book on 4'33", No Such Thing As Silence, wound up on my desk demanding to be read. Gann sets the scene from the piece's first performance this way: "The most famous event in the history of the Maverick series occurred in the late evening of August 29, 1952: the premiere of John Cage's 4'33:"

Pianist David Tudor sat down at the piano on the small raised wooden stage, closed the keyboard lid over the keys, and looked at a stopwatch. Twice in the next four minutes he raised the lid up and lowered it again, careful to make no audible sound, although at the same time he was turning pages of the music, which were devoid of notes. After four minutes and thirty-three seconds had passed, Tudor rose to receive applause--and thus was premiered one of the most controversial, inspiring, surprising, infamous, perplexing, and influential musical works since Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps. (pp. 2-3)

In the biographical and contextual arenas, Gann places Cage's work into its era admirably well--from his tutelage under Schoenberg to his extra-musical interests in everything from Thoreau to Zen. Although not explicitly called out, I noticed how Cage's wide-ranging sexuality

The reentry of Merce Cunningham into Cage's life from 1942 on spelled the beginning of the end of Cage's marriage to Xenia. The trio experimented with ménage à trios, and in so doing Cage realized that, sexually, he was more drawn to Cunningham. (p. 64)

mirrored his musical and intellectual appetites:

Throughout his writings, Cage collects authors to buttress his views on music and life but often projects his own meanings into them, taking what views he needs and transforming them to fit into his own context. (pp. 90-91)

After all the contextualization and explication is done, writes Gann, "we arrive at perhaps the simplest understanding of 4'33": that it is an invitation to (or, if you weren't aware of what was coming, an imposition of) zazen:"

If you desire certain things to happen in music, you will often be frustrated by it, and you must let go of desires and preferences. The attention to sonic phenomena, the understanding of them as the Deity, quiets the mind and renders it susceptible to divine influences. And what else is music supposed to do? If you are able to appreciate, at least on an intellectual level, that from a Zen standpoint there is no difference between playing a note and not playing a note, that a chord on the piano and a cough from an audience member behind you and the patter of rain on the Maverick Concert Hall roof are not different, but the same thing--then you may be able to think of 4'33" as something more profound than a joke, a hoax, or a deliberately provocative and nihilistic act of Dada. (p. 144)

Toward the end of the book, Gann writes that "It may seem silly to embark on an analysis of a piece of music containing no intentional sounds:"

But in fact the exact form of 4'33" is riddled with ambiguity: its notation changed twice, and the latitude of its performance direction, as described by its composer, has expanded over the decades. To simply describe what 4'33" is, at this point, requires almost a philosophical treatise. (p. 167)

Gann has given us as delightful and concise an attempt at such a treatise as could be written--one which thoroughly illuminates its subject. No Such Things As Silence could serve as a case study in how to write engagingly about modern music.


the author's page about the book

OpenCulture observes that "Cage does make an important distinction between 'music' and 'sound':"

He favors the latter for its chance, impersonal qualities, but also, importantly, because it is neither analytical nor emotional. Sound, says Cage, does not critique, interpret, or elaborate--it does not "talk." It simply is. But the distinction between music and not-music soon collapses, and Cage cites Emmanuel Kant in saying that music "doesn't have to mean anything," any more than the chance occurrences of sound.

The new paperback edition of Alex Ross' Listen to This includes his New Yorker essay on John Cage entitled "Searching for Silence." In it, Ross writes that Gann's book "doubles as an incisive, stylish primer on Cage's career," and provides his own assessment of Cage and his most famous work:

Nearly six decades after the work came into the world, "4'33″ " is still dismissed as "absolutely ridiculous," "stupid," "a gimmick," and the "emperor's new clothes"--to quote some sample putdowns that Gann extracted from an online comment board. Such judgments are especially common within classical music, where Cage, who died in 1992, remains an object of widespread scorn. In the visual arts, though, he long ago achieved monumental stature. He is considered a co-inventor of "happenings" and performance art; the Fluxus movement essentially arose from classes that Cage taught at the New School, in the late nineteen-fifties. (One exercise consisted of listening to a pin drop.) Cage emulated visual artists in turn, his chief idol being the master conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. The difference is that scorn for avant-garde art has almost entirely vanished. [...]

The simplest explanation for the resistance to avant-garde music is that human ears have a catlike vulnerability to unfamiliar sounds, and that when people feel trapped, as in a concert hall, they panic. In museums and galleries, we are free to move around, and turn away from what bewilders us. It's no surprise, then, that Cage has always gone over better in non-traditional spaces. [...] Like it or not, Cage will be with us a long time.

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